Making specific plans for achieving goals is a more likely way to successfully make or break habits.

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How Long to "Habit?"

If you've ever tried to break any habit at all, you can get a good feel for the reality of the 21-day rule by examining the following statement made by the "Self Improvement Mentor:"

[…] complete abstinence of a habit for 21 to 30 days will be enough to break it. So, you don't have to worry about having to continuously struggle to not indulge in a habit for the rest of your life. After 21 to 30 days, you would have surpassed the required threshold. [source: SIM]

Or in this statement made by the writers of the self-help book "The Secret," referring to a variation of the habit rule that says it takes 30 days:

[…] changing the habit will take 30 days, re-affirming it further for another 30 days will definitely fix it and you'll have no problem to continue from there on. [source: Secret]

Wow, really?

Changing a habit is never that simple. If it were, overeaters would all be thin, alcoholics would never relapse, and everyone would be up early enough to eat a healthy breakfast before work.

For most people, staying away from a bad habit is a lifetime effort, backed up by the fact that those well-worn synaptic pathways never go away. There's no apparent scientific reason why it would take three weeks to break an old habit or make a new habit. Depending on your unique physical and psychological make-up, it could take three weeks, it could take five days, or it could take nine months.

But there are some steps you can take to increase your chances of success in the endeavor, including:

  • Take small steps. Don't try to do everything at once. (So, instead of "I'm going to exercise every day," start with "I'm going to exercise twice a week.")
  • Only try to change one habit at a time. (Instead of "I'm going to quit eating junk food, start exercising, and go to sleep at 10 p.m. instead of 2 a.m.," start with "I'm going to quit eating junk food.")
  • Write down the habit you want to change, and write down specific plans for achieving that goal. (Rather than writing "I will exercise," write, "I will start walking 30 minutes twice a week, on Monday and Thursday, and I will wake up at 7 a.m., so I can walk before work on those days.")
  • Repeat the behavior you're aiming for as often as you can. The more a behavior is repeated, the more likely it is that it will become "instinctive."

[source: Newby-Clark]

For more information on habits and myths, look over the links on the next page.